Where the soul food at, Minneapolis?

It’s a question so often asked, it was destined to become its own Instagram hashtag. Search that hashtag, and you’ll see an Onyx Culinary Collective event is where you’ll find your answer. Vegan sweet potato pie, gumbo, shrimp and grits, even a begging-to-be-‘grammed (Instagram) soul food taco layered with macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and collard greens.

Soul food has had a difficult time taking hold in the Twin Cities dining scene, and while some excellent establishments have come (Lucille’s Kitchen, Big Daddy’s, Big E’s, et. al.) many of them have also gone. One thing that’s indisputable, and that is that there are not enough African-American owned-and-operated restaurants to point to an actual scene. And when visitors or transplants ask, “Where the soul food at?” those of us in the know can only sheepishly point to a thin smattering of spots.

With any luck, Onyx Culinary Collective will provide some salve.

“People come here from places – big cities – where the can go and get something to eat,” said Tene Wells, spokesperson for the collective. “You know, a barbecue spot that’s been there 20, 30 years and it’s consistent, and it’s good.” And while locally we have seen glimmers of great African-American cooking, the demise of the Rondo neighborhood (in St. Paul) and institutionalized barriers to traditional lending sources have prevented a thriving Black dining scene from emerging. A sad fact, since the talent exists, and is ready and eager to cook and to serve.

On a recent Saturday morning, members of the Onyx Collective are gathered at Breaking Bread, Minneapolis’ most visible soul food restaurant. Over shrimp and grits and fried chicken, they’re commiserating about the food industry at large, about rampant racism within the industry, and most of all, about dreams. Everyone at the table has one. A desserts food truck, a tiny restaurant, a catering company. Each one ready to answer the question … where the soul food at?

There’s a combined estimated 150 years of culinary experience at this table, and though each chef is ready and willing to start his or her own business, it’s a testament to the additional barriers Black people face in an already financially challenging industry that none has been able realize that dream, yet. After noticing a critical mass of Black faces vying for a similar goal – a shot at their own business – then-chef of Breaking Bread, LaChelle Cunningham, decided to found the collective. Cunningham has recently moved on to her own catering company, Chelle’s Kitchen.

“The white man’s economic model doesn’t work for us, and it wasn’t intended to work for us,” explained Wells, who has worked extensively with various models of economic engines and takes inspiration from community banking models around the world. As with other micro-financing models, members of Onyx made an initial $500 investment to the collective, and all of the profits from events are added to that seed investment. The goal is to raise $50,000 by November from the pop-ups, catering, sponsorships and a Kickstarter. If they are successful, the chefs have the option of cashing out to invest in their own businesses, or to invest in each other to continue to build capacity or capital.

So, how do you find out where the soul food at?

Onyx Collective will be hosting monthly pop-ups at Breaking Bread, each one honoring a different angle on Black culture or history. June is our late Prince’s birthday, and Onyx will create a menu in honor of the musical genius’ culinary tastes throughout different eras of his life. Patricia Anderson, sister of Andre Cymone, Prince’s childhood friend and member of his first band was tapped for insights, and here’s what she had to say.

“On Sundays her mother, Bernadette Anderson, fed her children and the band. She had to make a great meal for a few dollars. The group gathered around tables, counters and couches and ate meat loaf with red tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and greens. Beverages included red Kool-Aid, and salted caramel cake or sweet potato pie was always the desert.”

Onyx will pay homage to Prince’s youthful dining proclivities, as well as his evolution as a vegetarian. No sweat for these chefs, who have been proactively been working on plenty of vegan soul food dishes.

“We stay working on some vegan food. I don’t want Prince frowning down on me on his birthday,” said Jason Leibel, a private chef and caterer who creates funky, updated takes on soul food with his Soulful Culinary brand.

To the million-dollar question of whether too many chefs spoil the soup, the answer, so far, has been not really. About half of the original group has been lost to attrition, though that’s pretty normal when forming any new association. While each chef focuses on his or her own specialty, they’re expected to take feedback and work, yes, as a collective. “Either it’s right or it’s not. When you got the spoon in your mouth you can’t really argue with that,” said Leibel, where it comes to making adjustments for the greater good.

They say nobody seems overly intimidated by another person’s skill, and since they all share a common experience of Blackness in an overwhelmingly white dining landscape, the support is invaluable.

“We’ve all had to battle our way through this thing,” said Vaughn Larry, a longtime chef who also works at Breaking Bread. “This is the first time, in 46 years of cooking, I’ve seen so many Black people in one place.”

“This is how African-American food at its core was created” added Wells, who illustrates that Africans from all over the diaspora, amassed as slaves, combined their individual ingredients and techniques to form what is known as soul food today.

Meanwhile, both locally and nationwide, white chefs are proving that there is an enthusiastic audience for that food.

“But everybody don’t know what we know about our food,” said Larry.

“There should be (long lines) for food that’s prepared by the ancestors of the people that prepared this food in the first place,” concluded Wells. “If they (the chefs of the collective) don’t know how to make themselves successful, it’s an economic hardship for the whole community.”

Members of Onyx Culinary Collective include Bershawn Medlock, Jason Leibel, Vaughn Larry, Kenneth Jordan, Wells, operations manager Geoffrey Wilson, and social media advisor, Nicole Pacini.

In addition to the June 8 event celebrating Prince, the collective had events planned for July 13, Aug. 10 and Sept. 14.

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